Thursday, September 30, 2010

How Should A Person Be? Sheila Heti

Do you remember the puer aeternus – the eternal child – Peter Pan – the boy who never grows up, who never becomes a man? Or it’s like in The Little Prince. When the narrator asks him to draw him a sheep, the Prince tries and tries again, but each time he fails to do it as well as he wishes. He believes himself to be a great artist and can’t understand why it’s not working. In a fit of frustration, he instead draws a box – something he can do well. When the narrator asks how this is a picture of a sheep, the Prince replies that it is a picture of a sheep in a box. He is arrogantly proud of this solution and satisfied with his efforts. This response is typical of all puers. Such people will suddenly tell you they have another plan, and they always do it the moment things start getting difficult. But it’s their everlasting switching that is the dangerous thing, not what they choose.

Sheila’s heart speeds up in her chest…
Why is their everlasting switching dangerous?

Because people who live their lives this way can look forward to a single destiny, shared with others of this type – though such people do not believe they represent a type but feel themselves distinguished from the common run of man, who they see as held down by the banal anchors of the world. But while other people actually build a life in which things gain in meaning and significance, this is not true of the puer. Such a person inevitably looks back on life as it nears its end with a feeling of emptiness and sadness, aware of what they have built: nothing. In the quest for a life without suffering, failure, or doubt, that is what they achieve: a life empty of all those things that make a human life meaningful. And yet they started off believing themselves too special for this world!

I recently finished reading Toronto writer Sheila Heti’s second novel and third book of fiction How Should A Person Be? (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2010), continuing a line of unforgettable books that include her Ticknor (Anansi, 2005) and The Middle Stories (Anansi, 2001). Funny and strange and straightforward and confusing, Heti’s novel writes from the point of view of first-person “Sheila Heti,” who spends the entire book not writing a play, and simply moving around through her immediate world. We witness the character Sheila meeting friends and building a relationship with a painter, Margeaux, made complicated through “Sheila” beginning to record conversations between them. Part of what is so interesting about this novel is Heti’s examinations on how the self is written, using the real names of her friends as characters, yet saying in at least one interview how this book is no more autobiographical than her previous. “How should a person be?” she asks, in the first line of the novel, and the further the question gets explored, the more complex it becomes, even as the exploration doesn’t appear immediately obvious. This book is exploratory, in turns self-delusional and exceptionally aware, and unfailingly honest for managing to allow the contradiction.
I had spent the past few years putting off what I knew I had to do – leave the world for my room and emerge with the moon, something upon which the reflected light of my experience and knowledge could be seen: a true work of art, a real play. I had been avoiding the theatre’s calls and felt ashamed – my distress only growing as the time I spent on the play expanded, as the good work I had done represented an ever smaller percentage of the time I had done applied to it.

A feminist theatre company had commissioned me to write it during the first year of my marriage, and my only question had been, “Does it have to be a feminist play?”

“No,” they said, “but it has to be about women.”

I didn’t know anything about women! And yet I hoped I could do it, being a woman myself. I had never taken a commission, but I needed the money, and thought I could just as easily lead the people out of bondage writing a commissioned play as a play that originated with me. So I accepted the job, but the whole time I was married, I thought only about men – my husband in particular. What women might say to each other, or how one woman might affect another, I did not know. I put off handing in the play and put it off until I thought the theatre would forget and stop calling me, but they did not.
Still, there are stretches here supposedly transcriped from the character “Sheila” having conversations with “Margeaux,” which, some interviews have suggested, might have been real interviews between the author and the painter, as opposed to the fictional characters; does this part even matter? Either way, the blend somehow adds a layer to the novel as opposed to taking anything away. Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, in the end, manages to write out the ordinary and even mundane world without being either, showing how simply living and existing in the world is no less virtuous for one than any other, and certainly no less confusing. The novel appears to exist as an argument between creating something that is perfect against something that has deeper meaning, moving back and forth from the genius artist to the craftsman, from an ugly painting competition, working in a hair salon and the perfect blowjob, and how simply to exist. Heti’s magnificent novel is an expansive treatise on life and how to live it, simply through wandering and meandering passages that appear sometimes to be aimless, but are precisely not. Heti’s novel works hard to figure out the title question even as it avoids such for a stretch, even as her main character avoids the play she’s supposed to be writing which might be, in the end, the novel itself, possibly meant to exist as a novel by “Sheila Heti,” the failed play fully realized in another form.
I walked home by myself. Had anyone suggested at the time that it would not be the Egypt of the pharaohs that would survive and change the moral landscape of the world, but instead a group of Hebrew slaves, it would have seemed the ultimate absurdity.

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